ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Food and Photos and Travel05 Jul 2008

It’s not exactly a secret that “Chinese food” as often experienced in North America (egg rolls, chicken balls, fried rice, fortune cookies, etc.) is not something a typical Chinese person would be familiar with. Finding out exactly where and how this particular deep-fried cuisine originated would probably make for a fun project, but it isn’t my project today. I’m going to talk about the food I ate while I was in China. Thanks to Shengrong’s cooking and the occasional trip to a more authentic Chinese restaurant (they exist), I didn’t find the food to be totally outlandish, but there were a few strange bumps in the culinary road.

In Beijing, we stayed on the campus of the China University of Geosciences, and ate a few of our meals at one of the University restaurants, “”. One of my favorite things there were battered chicken wings heavily spiced with cumin. Shengrong ordered those on our first day since they’re more like the kind of food I’m used to. That was really the only meal in which I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage the food without any trouble, as I was really tired and jetlegged at the time. After that I ate everything happily, and when I got back to Canada I found my own cooking kind of boring for the first few days. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot better at handling chopsticks.

At the entrance of “Local Food” – it was pretty large and usually full of diners.

In a nice room of the restaurant where we ate lunch a few times, overlooking the university quad.

Naturally, we had to try Beijing Duck during our stay in Beijing. We ate it in “Quan ju de”, the most famous Beijing Duck restaurant, just off Tian’anmen Square. The duck is cooked with a crispy outside and then cut into small slices. You mix a few slices with leek, cucumber and a special sauce and roll them in thin pastries, using your chopsticks. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I really liked the end result.

Some ducks waiting to be Beijing’d.

Shengrong ordering duck.

Other highlights from Beijing included a surprisingly good (and cheap) meal of chicken and black bean procured very late at night from a small student-frequented spot on campus, and dumplings at the great wall.

We had several nice meals in Wuhan, both at restaurants and as cooked by Shengrong’s mom. Shengrong and I cooked a few dishes on our last night there, using some spices we brought from home. I’m not sure how well they went over, but everyone in the family had the good grace to eat them and smile…

The Chinese answer to the question of “what shall we eat?” is often different from ours. For example: when we’d stop for ice cream, Shengrong would select a mung bean flavored popsicle. I wish I’d taken a picture – they were such a delightful shade of green. I tried one and was nonplussed. The American tourists whom Shengrong helped order snacks at the Beijing museum weren’t too keen on the mung bean flavor either. Can’t say I blame them.
Another cultural quirk that I wasn’t really expecting is that nobody in China drinks anything cold. And heaven forbid you should want a cool glass of water… the best you’re likely to do is a cup of hot tea minus the tea. Even the bottled water would be on a shelf and not in a cooler. As someone drinks a lot of water in a typical day, this took some getting used to.

The table at a place where we ate in Wuhan. There are a few differences between the Chinese restaurant experience and the one we have here. For starters, larger restaurants are usually better quality: the concept of a tiny restaurant with a limited menu and delicious food doesn’t really exist there. People tend to dine out in large groups (the bigger the crowd, the more dishes you can order, after all) and often eat in private rooms. Chinese place-settings are different from what a Westerner would expect: one receives chopsticks (naturally), a spoon, a small plate on which to put bones and other things you aren’t going to eat, and a small bowl, in which you put your rice and a few morsels from various dishes.

Three dishes from that meal: soft-shelled turtle, squid, pork.

Brother turtle, up close.

I put some thought into what the strangest thing I ate in China was. High on the list was having oatmeal for breakfast. That, in and of itself, is not unusual, but I’d never eaten oatmeal with chopsticks before, which lent the proceedings a kind of surreal air. I liked breakfast in China generally, and enjoyed the dumplings and the sticky rice with mushrooms and tofu and egg, which is a typical Wuhan breakfast dish.

But no, the strangest thing I ate in China was probably this:

It’s the ovaries of some kind of special frog, stuffed inside a papaya. Apparently considered a delicacy. I’m not sure how the chef who invented that got his inspiration… How was it? Kind of watery and not strongly flavored.

This isn’t really of anything we ate, but I put it in out of interest since it’s broadly food-related:

It’s a little hard to make out because I was far away, but those guys are dynamiting fish in Wuhan’s east lake. I’d never seen that before. The fish were flying out of the water like popcorn.

And lastly, Chinese Dairy Queen. The prices were ridiculously expensive. 26 yuan will get you a frosty, or 26 servings of rice at any other restaurant. Your choice.

2 Responses to “Chinese Food”

  1. 06 Jul 2008 at 1:01 am Jamie

    I’m not sure how the chef who invented that got his inspiration…

    “Let’s stuff animal ovaries inside plant ovaries.”

  2. 25 Jul 2008 at 3:14 pm luke

    how can you not like a mung bean popsicle?

    granted, i haven’t tried one, but i am a big fan of the red bean ice cream the serve in sushi restaurants.

    how provincial of you, ian…

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